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The Physiological and Psychological Changes of Masters Athletes

Just because I haven’t been blogging, doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. 🙂 Here is a paper I’ve been working on over the last weekend for on master’s athletes for my Kinesiology course and Sports Psychology graduate program. I view this paper as a very brief overview of the changes within Master’s athletes and am very curious as to how master’s runners can work to sustain their performances in spite of inevitable physiological changes that will unfold. If race performance is a great deal mental focus and dermination can master’s athletes use this to their advantage by focusing more on developing mental fitness later in life to overcome physical deterioration? Will they even want to continue to race and train or do their racing goals shift along with their physical thresholds?



A Review of the Physiological and Psychological Changes of Master’s Athletes

Ed Whitlock represents the first person over the age of 70 to run a marathon in less than three hours. Furthermore, he remains the oldest person to run a marathon in less than four hours at 85 years old. His accomplishments are extraordinary and his physical limitations have been thus far unmatched, however participation in endurance events in later life is growing. Master’s runners are broadly defined as athletes who continue to train and race in their sport in years beyond their peak physical performance. In marathon and road running this is generally defined as after age 40 years old, however research studies on masters athletes often examine runners in their 50’s, 60’s and beyond to truly comprehend psychological changes in performance due to lifelong training.

The past two decades of endurance sports has witnessed increases in master’s participation across the marathon (Leppers & Cattagini, 2012) and half marathon distance (Leyk et al., 2007). Tanaka and Seals (2008) reveal this increase in master’s athletics may be related to changes in the age related make-up of the world population at large. In 2000 6.9% of the world population was classified as elderly, however this number is projected to grow to 19.3% of the population by 2050 (Tanaka & Seals).  Physical changes to the cardiovascular, muscular, skeletal, neurological systems throughout the life-span are inevitable, however masters athletes’ sustained performances in spite of these physical declines have researchers pondering if and to what capacity age-related decline can be abated (Raeburn & Dascombe, 2007; Raeburn & Dascombe, 2009).


Literature Review

Physiological Factors

Physiological changes to the human bodily systems throughout the lifespan are well documented. Mitchell’s (2013) work provides a thorough description of what typical changes aging individuals will experience in regards to the cardiovascular, muscular and skeletal systems. Mitchell highlights how after 30 years old in both men and women there is a decline in bone mineral mass making the skeletal system more brittle and susceptible to breaking. Additionally the muscular system shows signs of decay in that both the number and size of muscle cells are reduced in older adults; a reduction in muscle mass inherently decreasing the amount of force the muscle can produce thereby often limiting older adults speed and power during short distance road races. Additionally, the cardiovascular system of an older adult yields several key changes from youth: the major blood vessels become more rigid, fatty deposits within these vessels increase, and the stroke volume, heart rate and maximum oxygen update (VO2 max) show clear declines with each successive decade of aging.

Even though physiological changes are ultimately inescapable in an aging body research examining master’s athletes reveals that the physical deficits in the aerobic and anaerobic systems may be attenuated and performance levels relatively sustained with ongoing training in later life.  Trappe’s (2007) longitudinal study of marathoners closely examines the connection between the cardiovascular system, skeletal muscle and running performance throughout the lifespan across runners who stopped running (now sedentary), runners who continue to run socially and athletes who continue to follow a training plan in later life. Trappe’s analysis reveals that continuing to run and train at a high level into later life can mediate but not wholly prevent a decline in aerobic capacity. Athletes who continued to intensely train had the highest performance and power outputs of all participants. Interestingly skeletal muscle of middle-aged fit runners seem to have adapted to lifelong running as their single muscle fibers are smaller, weaker, contract faster and produce less power than those who have lead sedentary lives (Trappe). While this may seem like a disadvantage, Trappe describes that these physiological adaptations have evolved due the low power and high endurance demands of long distance running.

Masters athletes’ endurance performances yield inevitable, albeit inconsistent, declines throughout the lifespan and correlated with declines in athlete’s levels of VO2 max (Raeburn & Dascombe, 2008). The research reveals a 10% decrease in VO2 max per decade after 25-30 years old in healthy adults. However, Raeburn and Dascombe highlight that endurance athletes who continue to train in their late 30’s, 40’s and early 50’s will be able to maintain their exercise performance during these decades. More specifically, even though an athlete’s lactate threshold and ultimately their speed/power will decline, these levels can increase relative to the VO2 max when training is sustained in throughout the lifespan. Similar to Trappe (2007), Raeburn and Dascombe’s findings (2008, 2009) on aerobic and anaerobic performance note that consistent high intensity endurance training and run volume throughout the lifespan can mediate the rate of age-related decline in VO2 max, stroke volume, muscle mass and blood volume.

Gender specific changes in running performance throughout the lifespan are highlighted in research specific to post-menopausal female master’s athletes. Menopause represents a series of changes that gradually occur (typically) in a woman’s 50’s and 60’s that lead to various physical and psychological changes. Sims (2016) discusses these changes in her book, Roar, which is dedicated to the unique training demands of female athletes. Hormonal changes during menopause cause a variety of changes for the woman athlete. As levels of progesterone (an antianxiety hormone with sedative effects) drop during menopause, sleep disturbances rise.  Additionally estrogen levels have been linked to REM sleep and has been shown to decrease how long it takes for you to fall asleep. Menopause is accompanied with a drop in estrogen and not surprisingly a reduction in restful sleep. Sims highlights how postmenopausal master’s athletes use protein less effectively; she noted these athletes should aim to both avoid soy protein and take in 15 g of whey isolate about 30 min before training and 25 grams of whey isolate and casein within 30 min after exercising. Female master’s athletes have gender specific training modifications to incorporate later in life to promote maximum athletic performance.

Even those individuals who do not sustain endurance training throughout the lifespan are able to make age-specific improvements in muscular strength, endurance and flexibility when they return to training (Mitchell, 2013). While these individuals are past their peak performance age, the human body is able to make gains relative to its starting point with safe progressive resistance training. It is likely that similar gains can be made within endurance performance during a reintroduction to running later in life.

Training Injuries

              While the human body is an amazing machine capable of making adaptations throughout training to be able to sustain activity over 24 hours, the complex machine does have its limitations that leads many masters athletes injured.  Knobloch, Yoon and Yogt (2008) reveal that master’s athletes are more likely to sustain overuse injuries, rather than acute injuries during training. Even more, the research highlights Achilles tendinopathy, anterior knee pain and shin splints as the most common overuse injuries of master’s athletes with Achilles tendinopathy being the predominant injury.

At first it seems that master’s athletes who sustain high levels of training are able to mediate the effects of aging (i.e. sustained performances and slowed declines in decreases in heart rate, cardiac output, power, etc.), however master’s athletes adjust their training to avoid injury. Knoblock, Yoon and Yogt (2008) identify master’s runners who run more than 4x a week are at the highest risk of an overuse injury. Master’s athletes who train more than 65 km/week, have more than 10 years of experience running or those who train on sand (vs. traditional asphalt) are also at a significantly increased risk for injury. There is common trend for master’s endurance runners to add cycling and swimming cross training activities to their weekly regime in an effort to maintain aerobic fitness and decrease the amount of physical pounding incurred from running alone. Randsell, Vener, and Huberty (2009) closely examine the rise of triathlon across master’s athletes and note a significant decrease in overuse injuries across triathletes than in master’s runners. Under closer inspection it seems that master’s athletes who sustain high performances are able to do so by making compromises within their training approach to stay injury-free and physiologically strong.



Psychological Factors

The mind-body connection is powerful, deep and undeniable. Hutchinson (2016) dedicates an entire book entitled Endure to examine the critical role the mind can play in maximizing an athlete’s performance and race experience. Schuler and Langen’s research (2007) reveals how positive self-talk and mantras can be used as an effective strategy to maintain motivation and focus and to buffer against the negative impact of psychological crisis (i.e. fear, doubt, mental fatigue, race distractions) that often impact race performance after the 30K. No matter what age of the endurance athlete mental preparation and the use of the mind as a training tool and motivator is essential in race performance.

One may argue that master’s runners can use their powerful mind to reach new performance limits beyond their seemingly physical capabilities. However aging also leads to neurological and cognitive declines in brain functioning (Mitchell, 2013). Then again, if master’s athletes who sustain high levels of training throughout the lifespan attenuate many of the physiological effects of aging, could this mean that these master’s athletes are able to sustain their neurological and cognitive functioning (and thereby their athletic performance) beyond that of the average sedentary adult?

Master’s athletes not only make adjustments to their physical training plan, but also their psychological approach to training and racing. Many master’s athletes acknowledge a clear shift away from competition and achievement towards social enjoyment and maintaining a sense of self (Dionigi, Horton, & Baker, 2013). At some point master’s athletes are forced to acknowledge the physical changes that slow their reflexes, flexibility and endurance and need to be willing to adapt or modify their training to compensate for their limitations (Dionigi, Horton, & Baker). Mental training consultants should incorporate this age-related shift away from competing for accomplishment and towards participating in endurance events for health management, social enjoyment and maintaining a sense of self should be into athletes’ training plan. Mental training consultants should thoroughly investigate masters athletes’ goals and training motivation before establishing an approach to training together. The mental training consultant may assist the master’s athletes in creating positive self-verbalizations around their unique goals (i.e. possibly to finish the race with their training partner, to celebrate post-race with their team, etc.)


The machine that is the human body has the ability to maintain high levels of performance functioning into the 40’s and 50’s and in some early 60’s when modifications are integrated into training. Master’s athletes who sustain high levels of exercise throughout the lifespan have the ability to attenuate but not wholly escape the physiological and psychological effects of aging. Changes in the cardiovascular, skeletal, neurological and cognitive domains may ultimately slow all masters athlete’s performances, however these racing beings are in a category of their own as they push the body and the mind to adapt to meet their relentless physical and emotional need to move.




Dionigi, R. A., Horton, S., & Baker, J. (2013). How do older masters athletes account for their performance preservation? A qualitative analysis. Ageing and Society, 33(2), 297-319. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0144686X11001140 Retrieved from http://ncc1701.libprox.jfku.edu:8080/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1266142430?accountid=25307

Hutchinson, A. (2018). Endure: Mind, body and the curiously elastic limits of human performance. New York, NY: William Morrow.  

Knoblock, K., Yoon, U., & Vogt, P. (2008). Acute and overuse injuries correlated to hours of training in master’s running athletes. Foot & Ankle International, 6, 671-676. DOI: 10.3113/FAI.2008.0671

Leppers, R. & Cattagni, T. (2012). Do older athletes reach limits in their performance during marathon running? Age, 34, 773-781. DOI 10.1007/s11357-011-9271-z

Leyk, D., Erley, O., Ridder, D., Leurs, M., Ruther, T., Wunderlich, M., Sievert, A., Baum, K., & Essfeld, D. (2007). Aged-related changes in marathon and half marathon performances. International Journal of Sports Medicine 28, 513-527

Mitchell, Marilyn. (2013). Introduction to kinesiology: The science of human physical activity. San Diego, CA: Cognella

Raeburn, P. & Dascombe, B. (2008). Endurance performance in master’s athletes. European Review of Aging Physiology, 5, 31-42. DOI 10.1007/s11556-008-0029-2

Raeburn, P. & Dascombe, B. (2009). Anaerobic performance in master’s athletes. European Review of Aging Physiology, 6, 39-53. DOI 10.1007/s11556-008-0041-6

Ransdell, L. B., Vener, J., & Huberty, J. (2009). Master’s athletes: An analysis of running, swimming and cycling performance by age and gender. Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness, 7(2), S61-S63.

Schüler, J. & Langens, T. A. (2007), Psychological Crisis in a Marathon and the Buffering Effects of Self-Verbalizations. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37, 2319–2344. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2007.00260.x

Shaw, K. L. & Ostrow, A. (2005). Motivation and psychological skills in the senior athlete. Eur Rev Aging Phys Act, 2, 22-34

Sims, S. (2016). Roar: How to match your foot and fitness to your female physiology for optimum performance, great health and a strong, lean body for life. New York, NY: Rodale.

Tanaka, H. & Seals, D. R. (2008). Endurance exercise performance in master’s athletes: age-associated changes and underlying physiological mechanisms. Journal of Physiology, 55-63.

Trappe, S. (2007). Marathon runners: How do they age? Sports Medicine, 37(4-5), 302-305.

Love this book!

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